Black beans are like a blank canvas. Or a wide expanse of unmarked wall. Or an empty 12×12 Photoshop file. Or a freshly created OpenOffice Writer doc. Or like anything else that offers itself up to your creativity, awaiting only your personalizing touch to make it as awesome (or un-awesome, as the case may be) as you like.
You can make this soup with the ham hock, or without. You can make it with dried beans (always my preference) or canned. (If you're not using the ham hock, though, I definitely recommend starting with dried beans to get a nice flavorful broth.) You can make it with a canned chipotle chile (in which case, toss in a little of the adobo sauce) or a dried pasilla chile. Exercise your imagination, my friend!
Black Bean Soup with Toasted Chile Paste
Inspired by this recipe from Martha Rose Shulman
1 Tbsp olive oil
One medium onion, chopped, divided
6 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped, divided
One smoked ham hock (optional)
2 cups dried black beans, or 3 cans black beans
7 cups water (if you're not using the ham hock, you might want to use vegetable broth for at least part of the liquid)
1 Tbsp cumin
One dried pasilla chile (look for these in a little plastic bag in the Mexican food section of your grocery) or one canned chipotle chile plus 2 Tbsp adobo sauce from the can
One 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped cilantro and crumbled cotija cheese, for serving
Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add half the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, one minute more.
Add dried beans, ham hock and water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, until ham hock is cooked through and beans are super-tender, about an hour and a half.
Meanwhile, if you're using a dried chile, toast it briefly over a gas flame (what? no gas stove? toast it in a HOT cast iron skillet instead). This will only take a few seconds per side. Quit when it starts to smell really toasty and delicious. Then soak it in boiling water for 20 to 30 minutes, or until it is very soft. Chop it roughly into pieces.
Combine chile (or roughly chopped chipotle chile and adobo sauce), remaining onion and garlic, cumin and tomatoes in a blender. Process until very smooth. (You may need to add a little of the chile soaking water; taste it first to make sure it's not bitter. If it is, use a little of the tomato juices instead.)
Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add pureed chile mixture and cook, stirring frequently, until it's thick enough that a wooden spoon leaves a clean track on the bottom of the pan; then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook a couple minutes more, stirring regularly, especially around the edges. This should smell phenomenal.
When ham hock is cooked through, remove it to a cutting board and allow it to cool. If you're using canned beans, add them to the soup at this point too. Scrape in the chile paste and simmer everything together for about 20 minutes more.
Using an immersion blender if you have one, puree soup (in batches if necessary) until fairly smooth. Some chunkage is fine. Shred meat from ham bone with your fingers and stir it back into the pot. Taste soup and correct seasoning.
Serve with chopped cilantro and pretty little crumbles of cotija (or feta) cheese atop each bowl.